Return of the Thunder Pumpers

When we were in Hawaii last fall (September 2011) and we stumbled across the breathtaking photography of Dan Cesere and his brothers (C3 Submerged), I was captivated by the artistry of whales captured by these master photographers. That encounter inspired my author self (under the pseudonym Calinda B) to begin work on my latest piece of paranormal fiction about a character who will become a “whale whisperer.” Research for the writing endeavor has taken me on interesting trails into some of the spiritual leanings and significance of cetaceans held by certain Polynesian cultures, as told by Hank Wesselman. Further tripping along the writing research path, I’ve recently had the good fortune to interview and correspond with Dr. Fred Sharpe who brings a different point of view on whales to the table – that of a scientist. In speaking with Dr. Sharpe, he also shared a bit of good news – humpback whales, or “thunder pumpers” as he playfully called them, are on the rise.

Dr. Fred Sharpe, Alaska Whale FoundationThe Executive Director & Principal Investigator at the Alaska Whale Foundation, Dr. Sharpe has worked with whales for 25 years. When he told me that the humpback populations are recovering across the globe, I was heartened. Too often, the only news we hear is that of our failings: shark finning decimating shark populations to endangered status; coral bleaching from global warming; over-fishing; dumping numerous toxins into the watery world of our undersea brethren – the list goes on and on. It’s great to hear of the comeback of an ocean dwelling species. In fact, in an article from October 2011 in the Alaska Dispatch, it was stated that “the overall humpback whale population in the North Pacific has continued to increase and is now greater than some prior estimates of pre-whaling abundance,” according to a recently published paper in the journal of Marine Mammal Science. Current numbers list these sea giants at 21,000 and growing. This number is 15 times greater than the 1,400 remaining whales following their mid-century decimation from industrial whaling.

As an observer and investigator of whales, Dr. Sharpe described humpback whales as a highly intelligent, diverse culture which employs “tool use, task specialization and forms friendships that last summers, decades, and perhaps lifetimes.” He also contends that “These superlative beings can teach us much about ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, they allow us to find kinship among wild things.” Additionally, he calls the cetaceans “beings of endless possibilities.”

While Dr. Sharpe works on an on-call basis to free humpback whales from entanglement by fishing nets, lines and other gear* (AWF has one of the most experienced disentanglement teams on the West Coast of North America), his primary focus is on social behaviors of humpback whales with an emphasis on bubble feeding. He describes bubble net feeding as a form of “communal tool-using behavior,” initiated by one whale while the rest of the pod teams to drive prey into the net.

The way the bubble net phenomenon works is this: one humpback creates the approximately 65’ wide, 45’ deep bubble net by swimming in a circle and releasing effervescent bubbles from its blowhole. Meanwhile, other members of the pod herd prey, typically herring, to the feeding area using deafening trumpet-like sounds. Once the herring have been caught in the confines of the bubble net, the great beasts feast, bursting to the surface, their jaws open-wide to consume their wriggling meal.

The entire group has to work in concert with one another for prime feeding. There’s a point at which the bubble reaches an optimal point for prey capture. Meanwhile, the herding whales must practice coordinated efforts as a compact group to prevent the herring from moving below them and becoming motionless; a behavior typically exhibited by the fish when frightened. The bubble blowing whale must deploy the bubble net at a depth that is not too deep lest the herring swim up and over the top of the net before it reaches the surface. The complexity of this seemingly simple task is immense.The entirety of this social feeding technique speaks volumes to the intelligence possessed by this species.

When we went to Palau on a scuba diving adventure in October of 2010, my relationship to a different underwater denizen – sharks – changed for the better. Since then, I have become a shark advocate and cheer for each victory won on behalf of shark welfare. While I have never dove with whales (with one exception – they were apparently right over our heads while diving in Neah Bay) but have viewed them on numerous occasions from a boat, it was fascinating to savor a slice of information from one who spends time with them on a regular basis. studying, observing, investigating and cataloging. And, as previously mentioned, it’s nice to hear something positive for a change. If you read the paper or watch the news, every day we hear of tragedy, chaos, doom and gloom, political dissent and mayhem. Hearing that whale populations are going up instead of down, I am reminded that we can assist in positive change. And, listening to Dr. Sharpe speak of whale behavior, as well as reading some of his work, I am again reminded of the richness of ocean life and diversity, and the intelligence that surrounds us. We are only one life form on his planet – there are countless others sharing space with us and we are only beginning to understand the acumen and complexity of other species.

Check out these amazing videos of bubble net feeding and whale vocalization:

* If you observe a stranded, entangled or otherwise distressed marine mammal, please consult the NOAA Fisheries Stranding webpage for reporting and response resources in your area.